Like an explosion of orange confetti, or a leaf blower being used in the fall, the Monarch Butterfly reserves in the state of Michoacán offer visitors an explosion of orange unlike anything they’ve ever seen — and one they can not fully prepare for mentally until their boots are on the ground and thousands of orange wings are fluttering above them.
This was the first stop on our grand Mexican road trip, driving four hours in our silver manta ray of a Chevy Aveo from Querétaro through the state of Guanajuato into Michoacán and straight to the Rosario Monarch Butterfly reserve. All things considered, Mexican highways are quite good. Just like the US, highways are well maintained as the main cross-country people mover. The only thing a driver must watch out for is the regular and sporadic placement of speedbumps, which occasionally come without warning and have no hazard paint, leading the driver to be shot forcefully into space like a bottle rocket. I had a couple close calls going from 80 kmh down to 0 in a few seconds to avoid shooting out the front window.
Driving through central Mexico, I understand why the Spaniards named this part of the world “New Spain.” It looks remarkably similar to central Spain, in the same pervasively dry way with rolling scrubby hills and sun that burns any skin it touches within 15 minutes.
Our journey led us through the state of Guanajuato and into the unknown: Michoacán. Michoacán is now regarded as one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, seeing a recent upturn in violent crime and mafia-related human and drug trafficking. This is unfortunate because Michoacán is probably the prettiest state we visited in Mexico. Pine-covered peaks, gorgeous old towns, and wonderfully kind locals make it a destination worth journeying to with care taken towards safety as a number one priority.
The monarch butterfly sanctuary, located high in the mountains around 3500 meters above sea level deep within a pine forest, is the perfect experience during the winter months when the Monarch’s come to enjoy the warmer weather and feast upon nearly endless amounts of nectar. But this is not some Disney shit. I was expecting to see a drug addict in a butterfly costume, dancing and welcoming tourists to a theme park around butterflies. But what we experienced felt quite special.
You must enter with a guide, who walks into the sanctuary with you to give you some facts and make sure you don’t disturb the habitat. As we walked in, we started seeing a few butterflies. Pretty. But the deeper we went, I started to hear what sounded like the falling of leaves. I looked up and saw thousands of orange wings fluttering about in the sky, their wings sailing in the drift of the air in between the pines. The deeper we went into the forest the more butterflies flew through the air, until we stumbled into the main room for the monarchs. Here, among the tall Oyamel fir trees were thousands of butterflies huddling together for warmth. The trees seem thick with dead leaves, but in reality, there are little wings and proboscises in there snuggling up for a winter nap before heading North again. A beautiful community, seen nowhere else to this degree.
Now for a bit of butterfly talk, cause these little buggers live quite a life. Monarch butterflies migrate in generations, meaning this generation I’m seeing here in Michoacán will soon have a gigantic orgy in which the men will die from dehydration (my dream), before the females begin their journey back north in March and April. They’ll begin their way North, through Kansas and Minnesota and other fly-over states, laying their eggs and passing on the baton to the next generation, who will continue heading North into Southern Canada to enjoy the summer. Then these cheeky little snowbirds, or likely their children, will begin the journey back South to these hills of Michoacán to spawn again and enjoy their massive Monarch orgy. This is one of the most arduous and unique migrations in the animal kingdom, and to go from being in Kindergartner with a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar kit to seeing the end product makes 5-year-old me pretty giddy.
What’s more significant to me about these little guys is their symbolism to the locals. The monarchs represent an interesting dichotomy between belief systems. For us Northerners, I feel we never give too much thought to their journey. We learn about them in school, maybe even buy a Monarch butterfly kit to watch caterpillars turn into butterflies before releasing them back to Mexico. They’re little more than a blip in a textbook or an advertisement in a nature magazine made for kids, a lesson and nothing more.
For Mexicans, these butterflies have a more profound meaning. Their arrival in October coincides with the Día de los Muertos, meaning that for centuries it was believed that the souls of loved ones lived on in these butterflies, flying on their wings to be with family members once again. In a modern context, the butterflies represent the migration of Mexicans to the North. They awake and feel an instinctual urge to go North. Their journey may be fraught with countless perils, but they know that Mexico is where they will always return eventually, in some form. They represent a unique tie, a partnership that only Mexico, the US, and Canada have. They’re the best and most marvelous representation of our unique corner of the world. They represent what it means to be American — meaning any of the kooky characters born on this continent.
When I talked about this subject with our guide, Juan, a man who grew up in the village and never went to school, his eyes lit up as he threw a thumb up into the air. “That’s it!” Like all Mexicans, I found his politeness humbling in a sweet way.
To me, it seems amazing that the meaning of these butterflies can have such a beautiful context to an entire country, and be lost to two others. I do hope that we can look to unite ourselves more with our Americans in the North and South, and realize the beauty in working together to make a stronger America for all of us.
After spending time sitting and enjoying this natural splendor of fluttering orange explosions of life, we said goodbye and wished our winged friends a safe journey North as we headed the opposite direction, to the town of Zitácuaro to spend the night. The town was filled with stray dogs and confused-looking people, not sure why the blondies were walking down their streets.
The next morning we mused about learning new languages and teaching some Spanish to my mom and her boyfriend by going around the breakfast table and translating items. I can attest that coming to Mexico and being able to speak Spanish opens up so many more doors than not being able to speak it. Mexicans want to talk to you at every opportunity, and really listen to what you have to say. They are curious to learn about you, and share their beautiful country with you — yet, language can act as a barrier that only creates shy or awkward feelings from both parties.
Our silver manta ray of a Chevy Aveo would take us deeper into Michoacán today. Into the capital of Morelia on the way to the lakeside Pueblo Mágico of Pátzcuaro. What we did not realize was that today was the final day of carnaval, hence a big party to celebrate debauchery before the coming lent. The old town of Morelia was absolutely packed with young University students and geriatrics alike, ambling about in the intense sunshine of the bleached city. Morelia has a charming old town of towering sandy buildings and one large strawberry ice cream-colored cathedral. It seems fitting that the cathedral would be ice cream colored because Morelia is absolutely ice cream crazy. The cathedral is rimmed by parks filled with the wandering local who is coming from work but isn’t quite ready to go back home yet. We fit into this category a bit as well, yet as travelers we only got a little bit more lost than others on our walk back home.
Morelia has a youthful vibe, and even though Michoacán happens to be one of the more dangerous states to live in Mexico, the atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going on this offensively hot sunny day. We stopped for a brief lunch sampling some local dishes. Michoacán is famous for their carnitas, the same hard-beaten tenderly juicy delicious morsels of ropy pork you get on your tacos back home, but better. With food in our bellies, it was off to our stop for the night.
The road leading to Pátzcuaro was picturesque, lined with trees with rambling hills rolling in the distance. If it weren’t for the constant presence of marines and national guard troopers roaming the highway with automatic weapons, it would seem as if we had landed in Tuscany or some Spanish highland. Pátzcuaro itself adds to the picturesque beauty of the region, centered around the main square with cobblestoned streets of old beige houses and shops extending out from the central square.
As we arrived, an eruption of poorly tuned brass instruments playing over some hard beating drums paraded down the streets of the main center, followed by a parade of tall bussomy muscular women holding a papermaché bull and drinking from warm beer cans. We set our stuff down and joined the parade, and upon closer inspection found out that Pátzcuaro is not the center of a new Amazon tribe of tall warrior women, but rather hundreds of crossdressing men in tight melon-filled dresses donning pale white expressionless ‘women’ masks. Everyone was dressed in something, but these women seemed to be the stars of the event, with cross-dressing terrifyingly expressionless faces running around causing havoc. In a strong macho culture like that in Mexico, I can imagine the encouragement to squeeze into a tight dress, put on some orange boobs, and adorn your face with an anonymous expressionless mask would be rather liberating. You get to live out your wildest lady dreams, and as these Amazons got further and further down the warm beer hole they grew even wilder. Confetti is a bit deal here, and people take every chance they can get to throw confetti or crack an egg filled with sparkles over the head of the unsuspecting gringo.
Fine and I split from the parade and wandered around the city, mainly ambling in the park and watching the locals as the light drew dim. What I love about Mexico is the ability for all generations to come out and party together and be free in the same spaces. Babies in walkers to adults in walkers were toddling around the park together, enjoying the fresh dusk air together by simply existing. A taxi driver in Oaxaca would later tell me that Mexicans are unique to this world because they exist. And he didn’t mean because there are Mexicans, but because Mexicans are excellent at just sitting still and simply existing. It’s a national pastime. Everyone does it, and it’s something that takes a bit of getting used to when you come from a go-go Northern rat race life. Fine and I spent another few hours simply being part of this Mexican organism, simply existing and breathing as one.
The next day would lead us deeper into Michoacán and into a new unknown: the little-visited state of Colima. We bid farewell to the butterflies and the booby-adorned masked women and continued the journey south.